15. Modern Morality (circa 1973)
Sex In History by Gordon Rattray Taylor (1973)

THUS far I have sought to be the historian, chronicling and interpreting, but now that we have reached the top of the hill, and have brought the story up to our own times, let us look back and see where we stand in relation to the landscape as a whole. While we cannot hope to be completely dispassionate, perhaps we can use the perspective we- have gained to see our own codes of sexual behaviour a little more objectively than we usually do.

In general character, it is quite evident, the present period inclines to the matrist side. In the past two thousand years the pendulum has swung twice from matrism to patrism and back, and it is now swinging towards matrism for the third time. Perhaps it has reached a point a little more than halfway. Such a statement is necessarily rough, for, as always, some sections of the community lag behind the others: it looks as if the lower income groups regularly tend to be more matrist than higher ones — which may be a way of saying that patrists are more likely to possess the self discipline and ruthlessness required for attaining power or making money. The status of women seems to provide a fair index of society's location on the patrist-matrist scale: by this criterion the age is noticeably matrist. The battle for women's rights is usually regarded as having started in the seventies of the last century, but the beginning of the reaction can be put as early as 1840, when an innocent wife was first granted custody of her children. Today, even though women do not generally receive the same rate of pay as men, they have nevertheless obtained a very considerable measure of social and political equality. In the United States, indeed, the movement has gone yet farther, and there seems to be a tendency to put women on a pedestal in a way which echoes the days of the troubadours. There are circles which accept as a social ideal the notion that the favour of the woman can only be won by gifts and humble service, and that, after marriage, the man must work strenuously to maintain her in luxury and idleness.

Of the many other signs of a retreat from patrism it is hardly necessary to speak: not only are sexual mores more relaxed, but all the secondary signs are present, such as approval of research, disapproval of the use of force, and a greater interest in the support and nutrition of the weak than in matters of chastity. Needless to say, puritan taboos on the theatre and the novel have been largely abandoned. Attitudes to homosexuality are always especially indicative: the first signs of a more tolerant attitude are found in the works of Ulrich (1867), and today the greater part of the public is inclined to treat it as a misfortune rather than as a sin, although British law still prescribes a penalty of not less than ten years' imprisonment.

The great outburst of literary and creative activity which marked the opening decades of the century is also noteworthy, for it looks very much as if artistic productivity reaches a maximum at a point midway between patrism and matrism — as it did in the Elizabethan age. Under extreme patrism, spontaneity is too strongly repressed; under extreme matrism, there may be insufficient discipline to school and direct the creative urge.

In Britain, the divided character of the age — as between matrism and patrism — is expressed rather neatly in the political sphere, where there are two parties substantially identified with the two main attitudes. The party of the left is on the whole a matrist party, laying stress on supportive activities and especially concerned to see that everyone is adequately supplied with food and medical care: it tends to support the claims of women and to oppose the use of force. It is also the party most ready to make innovations — for instance, to experiment with new forms of public ownership of industry. The party of the right is, on the whole, a patrist party, more anxious to conserve what has been found valuable in the past than to experiment, readier to use force, less tolerant of sexual freedom. Such a generalisation is necessarily rough; conservative policies are not in practice markedly patrist, for if they were, the conservatives would fall from power, as the liberals already have; and with the passage of time even a socialist party develops its conservatisms. But the distinction becomes very evident whenever a psychologically crucial issue is put to the vote, without obligation to vote on party lines. The debates on the reintroduction of flogging for certain offences, and on the abolition of the death penalty are cases in point, and serve to sort members of parliament quite visibly into patrists and matrists. Parliament may not be a very effective device for the rational discussion of social policies, but it is quite a reasonably effective device for seeing that policies conform to the current state of psychological prejudice.

But while each chapter of history bears certain resemblances to the corresponding periods which have preceded it, it also displays significant differences. Some of these are purely technical in character, such as the steady improvement in the techniques of contraception, and in the techniques for manufacturing contraceptive devices. The invention, in the early thirties, of the latex process for the manufacture of condoms is undoubtedly a landmark in social history, and has drastically altered the circumstances attending sexual activity. In the United States, sales of condoms are stated to exceed 1.5 millions daily, to say nothing of the growing use of occlusive caps and contraceptive jellies. (128) This has not led, despite the fears of patrists, to any proportionate change in either birth-rate or marriage-rate, although it may have contributed to the decline in illegitimacy rates since Victorian times.

Another factor, whose importance we can hardly yet evaluate, is the tremendous increase in vicarious experience and especially in vicarious sexual stimulation. Printed and illustrated books and magazines are available to whole populations for the first time in history, while the cinema and television provide substitute erotic experience of unusual vividness. What the ultimate effect of such an enlargement in the fantasy life of whole populations may be it is probably too early to say. Still more generally, social and economic changes — such as the rise in the standard of living and the increase in the expectations of life — must certainly be having powerful consequences in the sexual life of the age. The former may increase the total amount of sexual energy developed; the latter, if it increases the average age difference of married couples, may reduce fertility. Either would have far-reaching consequences, and there can be little doubt that the full effect of such changes has still to be appreciated.

If, however, we confine our attention to questions of psychological make-up, such as we have been examining in earlier periods, we find signs that the present period may differ from comparable periods in the past in two important respects. One is the presence of an unusual number of persons of a dependent and pleasure seeking type of character. Just as the psychologist recognizes an "anal" type of person, interested in production, so he recognizes also an "oral" type, primarily interested in consumption and the satisfaction of desires. In this connection it is certainly noticeable that the popular pornography of today presents a type of female figure quite different from what has been popular at any period in the past. As I have said elsewhere:

"The quasi pornographic, semi-nude drawings known as 'pin-up girls' are distinguished by the anatomical peculiarity of slimness amounting to serious under development, except in the region of the mammary glands, which are depicted as of phenomenal size and in a state of tension such as exists only when they are in milk. They are relatively much larger than those on the Venus de Milo, though in every other respect the figure is much slimmer." (225)

A similar emphasis upon the breasts may be found in advertisements. It is also interesting that American film censors bar showing the cleft between the breasts, even when the breasts themselves are covered, while raising no objection to showing the upper part of the thighs. A century or so ago, the position would have been just the reverse. This accords with the general observation that clothing always seeks to conceal (and thus to preserve the erotic stimulus if) the object of erotic feeling.

To the psychologist, these are indubitably overt signs of a Psychic immaturity which also manifests more subtly in the form of dependency. The subject is too complex to pursue here, but it is tempting to speculate whether some important change in the general make-up of personality may not be occurring in Britain, and still more so in America. If it is, it will certainly have its effect on sexual relations — and since it is a form of immaturity, it will hardly be a desirable one. It will presumably also affect attitudes in a more general way. For instance, in the political field, I should expect it to appear in the form of a greater readiness to demand State support and to accept State action in matters which concern individual welfare and consumption, such as the supply of food, health services, pensions and perhaps defence.

The present day displays another curious feature. As we have noticed is usual in matrist phases, the difference between the dress and behaviour of the two sexes is minimized. But whereas in the previous matrist phase the dress of men imitated that of women in richness and delicacy, today it is the dress of women which approximates in simplicity to that of men. And whereas then men wore wigs with ringlets as long as those of women, today women cut their hair almost as short as that of men. So, too, in manners: where the eighteenth-century gallant gossiped and flirted like a woman, so today the ambition of many women is to succeed in the activities peculiar to men.

If it is a matrist phase, then, it is one which is in some sense dominated by the masculine ideal, while the eighteenth century was dominated by a feminine ideal.

The period also betrays signs of another development, one we have noted earlier as liable to follow a matrist swing — failure to form a satisfactory superego, leading to conscienceless anti-social behaviour. In every period of history there has been much cruelty, destructiveness and dishonesty, and it is doubtful whether the crime, dishonesty and delinquency of our own day are, as some people, claim, more widespread than usual. It may be simply that thanks to the press we hear about it more, or that our consciences are now more sensitive on the subject; or that this behaviour has changed in character. Nevertheless, the parallel with the past is striking enough to warrant some uneasiness.

But while the climate of opinion in our age has moved far in the direction of matrism, "public" opinion, the law and institutions lag, as always, far behind. "Public" opinion is always more conservative than the sum of "private" opinion: thus, though few now consider, for instance, that there is anything actually wicked in nudity, almost everyone is still embarrassed to be found in a state of nudity and shocked by any public exhibition of it. The law moves with even greater slowness than does "public opinion", perhaps because the legal professions, and the police, attract the patrist type of individual — while institutions, such as marriage, are still more resistant to modification. It is chiefly because of these varying time-lags that the past affects the present, creating, in a period like the present, needless misery and frustration. Probably the lag is more serious when passing from a patrist to a matrist phase, than when moving in the reverse direction, partly because governments are usually readier to pass laws than to repeal them, but chiefly because patrists tend to fight more actively for their views than do matrists. (Matrists, when in power, rarely pass laws compelling patrists to behave as matrists do; but when patrists are in power they invariably seek to make matrists conform.) It may therefore be worth pausing to consider more carefully how law and opinion change.

When existing opinion is mobilized by an active pressures group, as was the case with the feminist movement of the last century, the law may be changed very considerably. But there are many cases where such a lobbying is difficult: for instance, it is comparatively easy to unite feminists, all conscious of suffering under disabilities; it is much harder to unite opinion in favour of a change in the divorce laws, since many of those who in principle favour a change may never be personally affected. It is obviously ye more difficult to lobby for a change in the laws concerning homosexuality. Hence it is not surprising that, in the last hundred years, the laws discriminating against women have been completely transformed, the law of divorce has been modified a little, while the laws concerning homosexuality have actually been made more severe.

Probably the most astonishing and unexpected of these legacies from the past is the continuation of the Victorian taboos on verbal and symbolic references to sexual matters. While the public at large has become much readier to discuss sexual matters freely, the legal position has become steadily more restrictive. We have already seen how, in the nineteenth century, the laws against pornography were reinterpreted to apply to literary and even political works; but, before the turn of the century, they could not be applied to suppress doctrines which some might regard as immoral, provided that they were decently expressed. As the Digest of Criminal Law said in 1877,

"Obscenity and immorality in this wide sense are entirely distinct from one another".

But in 1907 this view was upset when a prosecution was brought against Hubert Wales's book "The Yoke", in which a mother seduced her son in order to protect him from an undesirable female.

After the first World War, these laws were given still further application by extending the notion of publication to include the lending of books by one private individual to another and even the submission of a manuscript to a printer. Thus in 1932 a sentence of six months' imprisonment was imposed on a man who submitted to a printer a translation of poems by Rabelais and Verlaine. (47) Then in 1935 they were extended to include scientific works, hitherto regarded as privileged. Fines were imposed on the publisher of Edward Charles's The Sexual Impulse; more than twenty persons of public repute, including Professors Malinowski and Flugel, were prepared to appear in court to state that the book was a scientific work. It must be borne in mind that among the works which have been adjudged pornographic in recent years are not only Rabelais and Pierre Louys, but works of value to scholars such as Sinistrari's great treatise on witchcraft, the whole of the twelfth book of the Greek anthology, Lucian's Dialogi Meretricii and even a mediaeval mystery play, Ludus Coventriae A. On one occasion the police attempted to seize and destroy copies of Plato's Symposium, and only abandoned their intention of prosecuting when advised that they would make themselves ridiculous.

This really quite astonishing state of affairs can be explained, I think, by the fact that patrists tend to seek positions of authority; as a result, certain professions, such as the police and the judiciary, remain unmitigatedly patrist even in a non-patrist age. We must never forget that representatives of the unfashionable modes continue to be produced and to maintain minority points of view. Thus in 1935 a Public Morality Council was set up which exactly paralleled the reform societies of the eighteenth century. Such bodies are helped by the English preference for letting obsolete statutes fall into disuse rather than remove them from the statute book: reformist societies have found that their best course is to insist on the rigorous application of statutes which are frequently many centuries old. The Lord's Day Observance Society continues the seventeenth century Puritan policy of enforcing ancient laws against Sunday recreation, and in children's playgrounds the swings and see-saws are still padlocked at weekends. Every week, the National Vigilance Association informs the police of cases of homosexuality, books which it deems obscene, and other matters. Only when these activities threaten powerful business interests is serious opposition offered. Thus, when Sunday observance laws were invoked against Sunday film performances, an even older statute was found excepting films from these laws.

The strength with which the patrist outlook persists in police and legal circles may also be noted in the way in which laws, originally intended for some other purpose, are invoked to punish sexual offences. A few days before I wrote these lines, actions were brought under the Aliens Order against two unmarried women (not aliens) who had spent the night at an hotel with two American soldiers, registering as married women: they were committed to prison. A few days later, a firm which had allowed a boy to carry naphtha in open buckets, which led to an explosion in which he was killed, was fined £10. It would seem that the attitude of mind which, in the Middle Ages, regarded fornication as a more serious crime than manslaughter, still finds echoes today.

But the past influences us in a more far-reaching way through our basic assumptions, which change very slowly and almost unnoticeably. The best example of this is perhaps the assumption of monogamous marriage, which has become so much a part of our thinking that to challenge it does not come in question. So much so, that we fondly suppose it always to have been the custom, and think of it as something especially endorsed by the Christian religion. Yet, as we have seen, this is by no means the case. It has taken about a thousand years to embed this assumption in our thinking, and no doubt a thousand years from now it will have vanished again. The idea may be shocking, but the delightful illusion that social change culminates in us can no longer be sustained.

It is largely because of this tendency that, when changes are to be made, they are made if possible by adapting old institutions to new ends: as a result, though the outward form of institutions persists, their content often changes. For instance, in the United States, opinion has now so shifted that a man's living consecutively with as many as half a dozen women is tolerated, thus reproducing, in one respect at least, the morality of third century Ireland. But this has been contrived without abandoning the forms of Christian marriage by the simple process of making divorce easier. While the marriage service retains, almost unaltered, its mediaeval form and wording, and asserts its claim to be a sacrament unto death, yet it becomes in such cases little more than a device for legalizing fornication.

Another of these basic assumptions is that religion must, in this country, always take a patrist, non-ecstatic form. How deeply this assumption is embedded is revealed by the claim, so often made, that democracies enjoy freedom of worship. In reality, we only tolerate the practice of father-religions, such as those of Jehovah or Mahomet. Anyone who was so rash as to attempt to practise the rites of the mother religions in any centre of population in Great Britain or the United States would instantly be arrested for insulting behaviour or keeping a disorderly house. When a sect practising phallic snakes worship, with almost the precise rites of Dionysos, was discovered in Kentucky a few years ago, there was a nationwide scandal, and it was suppressed.

For us in Britain, the claim to allow freedom of worship is particularly ironic, since we are the founders of an empire in which six out of every seven of the Queen's subjects still worship fertility deities — a fact which perhaps explains why the Pakistan Government recently refused to recognize the Queen's claim to be Defender of the Faith. (244) To pride ones self on maintaining religious freedom while outlawing the rites of hundreds of millions of people is a truly British feat of self-hypnotism.

The point is by no means a hypothetical one, for as Havelock Ellis has recorded, when a certain W. J. Chidley publicly advocated that the sexual act should be regarded as noble and even holy, and that it should be performed publicly, on suitable occasions, without shame, the Australian police chose to regard him as insane and he was locked up. (75) Two millennia before, the emphasis would have been exactly reversed.

The claim that sex might be holy, not sinful, is still the thing which arouses the deepest anxieties of the patrist. Chidley's autobiography, bequeathed to Ellis until such time as it could safely be published is still unprintable. And it was the suggestion that sex should be treated in this way which, apparently, led to the condemnation of Charles's book The Sexual Impulse. I must therefore make it clear that I am simply recording the facts, not advocating anything of the sort myself. I am attempting to make the reader see the arbitrary character, anthropologically speaking, of his basic assumptions, and that is always a disconcerting experience. The same end can be achieved equally well by using a comparative rather than a historical approach. If we consider the European tradition against data gathered by anthropologists from other cultures, we begin to see that, with all its variation, it has remained rather consistently within a single octave from the whole gamut of possible behaviour. And this is true not only in the superficial sense that the sexual customs and institutions of other societies differ greatly from our own but also in the profounder sense that the irrational anxieties which underlie them differ also. Europe has nothing to show which corresponds to the Marind Anim's fear that no one will find normal intercourse sufficiently attractive to engage in it, or the continual Balinese anxiety that marriage will fail because of impotence. At the same time, anthropology shows that even the most eccentric of its taboos is not unique, for the chemise cagoule has its counterpart in the "chastity blanket" with its single hole, which the American Indian must obtain from the elders of the tribe whenever he wishes to have intercourse with his wife.

If I have done my work properly, it will now be clear to the reader how muddled and arbitrary our system of sexual-morality is. In fact, it is not in any consistent ethical sense a morality at all. It is essentially a hodge-podge of attitudes derived from the past, upon which is erected a shaky and inconsistent system of laws and social prohibitions. Some of these fragments from the past date from before the introduction of Christianity; some are magical in origin, others are based on faulty science; yet others have grown up by reinterpretation of old laws, originally passed with quite a different purpose. That we have retained these ancient regulations is due to the fact that they effectively express the prejudices of the dominant group. For the great majority of the prohibitions which regulate our sexual conduct are, or were, taboos — that is, prohibitions introduced to relieve unconscious, irrational anxieties. (This is not the less true just because they have been supported from time to time by a great parade of scholarly justification.)

To say that our prohibitions are mostly irrational in origin does not mean that they are necessarily worthless: for instance, no doubt excellent psychological and social reasons could be adduced for discouraging intra-familial incest. But our uncritical acceptance of the legacy of the past causes us to accept the worthless along with the good, while our failure to recognize the irrational anxieties behind many of these prohibitions invests infractions of them with an undue horror, causing us to apply the rules too severely and to punish infractions with undue severity.

The English, of course, love to believe that the blind process of rule-of-thumb adjustment and evolution produces the best results in the end, and it is always possible to gain a reputation for wisdom and far-sightedness by concluding that, with all its defects and apparent inconsistencies, English morality is, after all, the fairest and most decent code of living that the world has yet produced. Such was evidently not the case in past centuries; the casebooks of psychiatrists and the records of the courts suggest that such complacency may still be out of place today.